How do they do it? In spite of large, professional European bureaucracies and huge urban voting pools, farmers in Europe seem able to keep the attentions of their politicians and the public and thus maintain significant support.
American producers also seem able to use the power of their organizations’ lobbying and their votes to maintain significant influence.
In the United States, about 1.2 percent of the population is involved in farming. In Canada, it is two percent and in the EU about half a percent.
So, how do European producers maintain their hold on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) that pays them about $100 billion annually?
The EU parliament has recently been considering CAP reform. The bureaucracy is using the current supply and demand situation and higher prices to push for cuts to the subsidies and incentives farmers are paid. Officials likely hope farmers who are doing well financially will be less likely to maintain pressure for continued financial support.
There have been no announcements from Brussels about CAP reform but it appears the current policy and payments will continue.
More recently, an EU initiative to place carbon emissions restrictions on farmers in exchange for CAP payments faces farmer resistance.
The EU’s Green Deal, a plan for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, conflicts with many programs enshrined in the CAP. Brussels does offer a few bones for farmers to chew on, including potentially opening up to changes at the World Trade Organization when it comes to food and agriculture trade rules, if it would help get a Green Deal dealt with. So far,the carbon plan is short on details. It is popular with the general public but farmers are popular as well.
Farmers have held protests across the EU over potential reforms to the CAP and the damage those changes could inflict via the Green Deal. Just last week, Irish producers took their farm equipment to the streets of 30 towns nationwide to ensure their urban neighbours were aware of events in Brussels.
While the CAP is a boon to farmers’ bottom lines, it is also known for its unfair distribution of credits and cash that often benefit wealthy land holders and leave smaller farmers with less than their perceived share. European farms have consolidated and many smaller farms have disappeared despite the CAP.
Previous reforms moved dairy and poultry producers to a more market-based system, with a compensatory exit program. As a result, smaller producers in higher-cost regions, such as a pre-BREXIT United Kingdom, left those sectors. Farmers in newer EU member states, where labour and land are cheaper grew their operations.
Sugar beet producers too have been hit hard by global price realities after losing their supply management program three years ago. Despite compensation and modernization, competing with cheaper sources from around the globe and EU restrictions on pesticides to support cropped acres, farmers have cut plantings by more than half. Now they want back into the CAP, suggesting their beets are greener than cane they compete with.
Those reforms, done for the sake of reform, put food security at risk, some EU farmers argue. They use stable food supplies and the sustainability of smaller family farms as public relations tools when reaching out to non-farming citizens.
Those tools may not be enough for them to avoid new rules designed to battle climate change, but EU producers have a good negotiating position.
So far, they are sticking to a single message: those who want changes to farm practices will have to pay for them.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.